Non-discrimination laws matter least in helping women advance


On January 12th, the International Labour Organization – a specialized agency of the United Nations – published its global report “Gaining Momentum: Women in Business and Management.” The report -

looks at the most recent statistics and information at a global level, and provides a unique insight into the experiences, realities and views of companies in developing countries.

It aims to create greater understanding of the barriers to women’s advancement in business and management. It points to possible ways of tackling the issue, highlighting good practices among private sector businesses and organizations that represent them.

Unlike a lot of reports that focus on the underrepresentation of women in the workforce, the ILO’s puts a refreshing emphasis on facts and figures, rather than resting on the assumption that all inequality comes down to inherent sexism on the part of male employers.

The data it compiles provides a huge range of insight into the state of female involvement in different areas of public life - exploring why less than 5 percent of CEOs are women while also explaining how a third of the world's enterprises have come to be run by women.

But the most telling table in the report looks at "company respondents to the ILO company survey conducted across developing regions" who "ranked what they considered the most significant barriers in order of priority" to women's leadership and promotion:

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It will be surprising (dare I say frustrating) for many people to learn that the top two ranked barriers to women's leadership had everything to do with traditional views of women in society and the their role in the family unit, and nothing to do with employer discrimination (inherent gender bias ranks 12th on the list!).

It often seems in western society that radical gender equality advocates want the reason for gender inequalities - especially in the workforce - to be sexism. To be honest, I'm somewhat sympathetic to what, I assume, is their reasoning. If inequality in the workforce is mainly driven by something as awful as sexism, then we can shout about it, legislate against it, demand board quotas, demand companies publicise payroll figures according to gender. Combined, we can legislate and ban the discrimination away.

But this just isn't the case: all regions in the ILO's survey, "identified inadequate labour and non-discrimination laws as the least significant barrier" to women leadership and promotion. (Bolded is my emphasis.)

In places like the UK, gender inequality has very little to do with male bias - after all, women in full-time work aged between 22 - 39 are now, on average, are earning 1.1 percent more than their male counterparts. The reality is that women's life choices are determining how far they succeed in their career, including the kind of degree they pursue, when and how they go about having kids, and how long they spend out of the work force.

We shouldn't harp or judge women for the choices they decide to make - different people have different priorities, and that's okay - but if we want to attack the institutionalised sexism that still exists in our culture today, it would be far more productive to target the teaching, training, and conditioning of women to become 'mothers and wives' than to go after the employers who, based on all recent evidence, seem to be giving women an equal and fair shot at having a career.

That's a big ask, I know. Solving sexism by reforming ourselves and our traditions will be a big change from legislating things.